This week marked one year since Donald Trump was elected. It was an emotional week, and not just because Facebook kept reminding me of all the winning and losing elections I’ve worked on over the past decade via their memories app. The past year has taken a toll. Watching my fellow Democrats continue to re-litigate the 2016 primary last weekend didn’t help my mood. I thought about the #techhearings and how Americans learned just how much effort Russia has put into pitting Americans against one another and I wondered if anyone in my party had learned much of anything from 2016.
Thankfully, Democrats outside my political elite filter bubble have learned a lot. We won big on Tuesday night, and by astounding margins in Virginia. One year out, Election Day was a solid rebuke of the Trump administration’s attempt to rebuild America into a White Nationalist hellscape. Hopefully, it was a preview of what’s to come in 2018.
One year later, we know so much more than we did about the online army that helped Trump win the presidency: from neo-Nazis showing themselves in Charlottesville and similar events, to Russian operatives inflaming us. From misinformation campaigns, to alt-lite celebrities, to America’s most punchable Nazi. We’ve mapped out a lot of the filth that exists online, and better understand how Trump taps into all of it for his own purposes.
But I worry that we’re still missing the point.
America doesn’t just have a Russia problem or even a social media problem. America has a white supremacy problem. Hostile actors are able to inflame us easily because we’re giving them so much material to work with. Trump’s supporters have shown time and time again that they’re willing to destroy democracy if that’s what it takes to preserve white supremacy. Most Americans don’t agree with that viewpoint, but far too many white Americans who don’t are also in denial about what we’re actually up against.
Two articles I want to highlight: The first from The Root’s Terrell Starr, whose analysis has greatly informed my own thinking over the past year. Russian Meddling Reveals Truths America Can’t Place at the Kremlin’s Feet.Excerpt:
Russia did not elect Trump. White people driven by racial anxiety did that. There are studies and news reports exploring the racial fissures involved in why Trump was so persuasive with so many white voters, but few are willing to indict them for supporting a racist.
While it is important to explore the ways in which Russia manipulates social media to sway the American public — the New York Times’ investigation into millions of Kremlin dollars bankrolling investments in Facebook and Twitter is a great start — the real come-to-Jesus investigation should focus on Americans who can be so easily swayed by fake news designed to tap their racial fears.
When those House and Senate hearings take place on the Hill, perhaps we’ll realize that Russia may have meddled in the 2016 election, but white supremacy hacked America long before Russian President Vladimir Putin had a chance to order his intelligence agencies to finance social media ads that have no power to cast a ballot in the United States.
The second is from Gary Younge, a black British reporter who spent the last year reporting on white America for a BBC documentary. Younge’s narrative gives a broader take of white America, culturally and politically:
Any reckoning with how the US got to this point, politically, demands some interrogation of how white America got to this place economically and culturally; that takes into account both their relative privilege and their huge pockets of pain.
White Americans make up a majority of the country. Compared with other races, they may enjoy an immense concentration of wealth and power. But these privileges are nonetheless underpinned by considerable anxiety. Their health is failing (white people’s life expectancy has stalled or dipped in recent years), their wages are stagnating (adjusting for inflation, they are just 10% higher now than they were 44 years ago) and class fluidity is drying up (the prospects of poor white Americans breaking through class barriers is worse now than it has been for a long time). Out-traded by China(in 2016 the trade deficit with the country was $347bn); soon to be outnumbered at home (within a generation white people will be a minority); and outmanoeuvred on the battlefields of the Arab world and beyond (neither of the wars launched in response to 9/11 have ended in victory), these vulnerabilities are felt at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters are in the streets over police brutality, football players are taking a knee and the movement to bring legal status to large numbers of undocumented people grows. White Americans feel more pessimistic about their future than any other group. Almost two-thirds of white working-class people think the country has changed for the worse since the 50s.
Contrast these to this widely-shared Politico piece, a prime example of the denial. It’s yet another maddening article interviewing Trump voters who don’t regret their vote, even if Trump doesn’t do what he promised. The undercurrent of the piece, which I’m not sure if the author or most readers grasped, is that those voters didn’t elect Trump to make progress but to break the system as it currently exists. If Trump voters can’t be on top of the racial hierarchy anymore, they’re happy to let our president take down the system entirely.
One year ago, I was devastated because Trump won the election. What I’ve come to realize is that Trump isn’t the problem but a symptom of it. There are hostile actors, foreign and domestic, whose goal is to destroy democracy. And there’s a segment Americans willing to let them, and happy to help them along, if it means preserving white dominance in our society.
Long after Vlad gets bored of messing with us on social media, the issues used to divide Americans will still be present. Yes, we have to fight back against Russian influence operations and misinformation. Yes, we need to regulate the tech companies. But that’s not enough. As we’re combating social media weaponization, we can’t lose sight of the underlying issues that got us here in the first place.
The above is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online.